Going Back to the Roots

Last week a friend from France was visiting, and we had bhindi vegetable for lunch. The conversation turned to what this vegetable was called, and how it was eaten, in different parts of the world– from crisply fried Lady’s Fingers, to Okra soup.  This not particularly fancy nor exotic vegetable boasts of a long list of synonyms including gombo, gumbo, quingombo, okro, ochro, bamia, bamie, quiabo!

Fruits and vegetables are such an integral part of our daily diet, but most of us are not aware of their intriguing histories. Many vegetable names simply refer to their shape, colour and taste. In the case of Drumstick, this makes sense, but to imagine bhindi as Lady’s Fingers does take a leap of imagination!

The names of many vegetables and fruits in English have their origins in languages like Latin, Spanish, and French; and sometimes the original meanings lie hidden in their names.

Eggplant was given its name by Europeans in the middle of the eighteenth century because the variety they knew had fruits that were of a whitish or yellowish colour, and the shape and size of goose eggs. The purple variety that we are most familiar with, and call baingan or brinjal may have been derived from the Sanskrit vatimgana. This word travelled through Persian to the Arabic name al-badinjan, and further filtered through Portuguese and Catalan to become aubergine in Britain and Europe.

Cabbage gets its name from Middle French caboche which means ‘head’. It was derived as a diminutive from Latin caput which means head as it resembled the head of a person.

Orange, the fruit on the other hand, was not named for its colour, but the other way round.  The word is believed to have its origins from the Sanskrit naranga; which explains why, in several Indian languages, it is called narangi.

Pineapple seems to be a simple joining of two English words–pine and apple.  But surprisingly this word was originally used for what we call pine cone; although it is inexplicable why an inedible, hard piece of a tree should be called a pine ‘apple’. To confuse things further, melon is the Greek word for apple!

In a similar vein, Gooseberry has nothing to do with geese. It was originally gorseberry, derived from the ‘gorst’ which meant rough. This berry was so called because it grew on a rough and thorny shrub.

Raspberry comes from the German verb raspen which means to rub together or rub as with a file. The marks on the berry were thought to resemble file markings.

Strawberry is a corruption of ‘strayberry’ which was so named because of the way the runners from this plant stray all over the place!

Currants were so called because they first came from Corinth. Cherries got their name from the city of Cerasus. The term grape is the English equivalent of the Italian grappo, and the Dutch and the French grappe, all meaning bunch. Raisin is a French word that comes from the Latin racenus, a dried grape.

Kiwi however takes the cake! It is so called not because it originated in New Zealand—the home of the Kiwi bird. It is the Chinese missionaries who brought the fruit to this country, and they called them Chinese gooseberries because they were from China and similar in flavour to gooseberries. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when New Zealand began exporting the fruit, that people started calling it Kiwi fruit.

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Vegetable or Fruit?

And then there is the tomato. In culinary terms we consider it a vegetable; but this is actually a fruit in terms of its botanical characteristics—it is edible, contains a seed, is at least somewhat sweet, and grows on a plant.

16 October is celebrated every year as World Food Day. This marks the date of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.  Let each day be one of thanksgiving and celebration of the food we eat, by whatever name we may call it. After all, a mango by any other name will taste just as delicious!

–Mamata

 

Technology And the Sweet Smell of Success

c51a218268e55a64559428ab06f2eff5Last week, at a Rotary event, I heard Kavita Misra speak. She  is a woman-farmer-entrepreneur from the backward district of Raichur, Karnataka. A diploma and PG in Computer Applications, she was married into a traditional family. Though offered a lucrative job in an IT major 20 years ago, she did not take up the offer as her family was not happy to have her take a job. Her husband threw her the challenge to stay in the village and do something. He gave her an acre of land—which was rocky, barren and water-less. Because that was all that was available there. From there to becoming the millionaire famer-entrepreneur she is today was a long and hard journey.

The most important lesson to me was the role her technical education and training have played in her success. Her actively seeking new and better methods of farming, and quick adoption of innovations has been at the heart of her achievements.  And it brought to me that if we want a paradigm shift in the way farmers do agriculture, they need to be more comfortable with technology, in sync with scientific developments and more technically savvy.

To give an example, Kavita is one of the most successful sandalwood growers in the country, and has sandalwood nurseries which sell sandalwood saplings all over India. Sandalwood is one of the very high value trees, and farmers who cultivate it can earn in crores. The tree fetches about Rs. 1 crore per tonne. A 15-year old tree yields about 15 kg of heartwood (though waiting 20-25 years gives more yields), and one acre can support about 300 trees.

One of the biggest challenges in sandalwood cultivation is theft. Given the high value of the wood, thieves and smugglers are constantly looking for ways to get into plantations and make away with trees. Farmers usually deploy guards and guard dogs, apart from physical and electrical fences.

Recently, Institute of Wood Science and Technology (IWST), has developed a microchip which can be inserted into the growing sandalwood trees, and linked to a smart phone. And you can monitor your tree from anywhere in the world! Alerts go to the farmer as well as the nearest police station if any movement of the wood is detected.

This has been developed, field tested and improved over two years by IWST and Hitachi India Pvt. Ltd. There were many problems to overcome..from the battery size which was too big for the tree trunks to bear, to need for increasing battery life, to the sensitivity of the chip to wear and tear and exposure to the elements.

Even though it is expensive, progressive farmers like Kavita have been able to see the potential and have quickly come forward to adopt the technology and popularize it among others. It is this mind-set and appreciation of the benefits of technology which will be game-changers in agriculture.

–Meena

Remembering the Post-age

World Post Day is celebrated on 9 October each year. This is the dpost box india.jpgate on which the Universal Postal Union was established in 1874, in Bern, Switzerland. It was declared as World Post Day at the UPU Congress held in Tokyo in 1969. In just 50 years technology has hugely changed our modes of written communication. Soon there will be an entire generation that has never handled pen, paper, envelopes and stamps, and will never know what the age of physical post was all about. I do feel sorry for them!

Here is my small way of celebrating World Post Day!

An Ode to Letters

The last time I wrote a letter? Why, just today!

I need it like therapy, at least once a day.

I do not twitter nor tweet, tho’ the world finds it so neat!

Instagram and Snapchat…What’s that?

I like my words to be spelt as they must, and sentences that don’t rust.

Alas, now I too must type my words and SEND an e-mail.

Oh for the days when they were penned, and were snail mail!

I so miss the prelude, the preparation and the process…

Choosing the paper and filling the pen (with an ink called Quink!)

Trying to capture the words as they tumbled and tangled and dangled,

Protestations and lamentations, explanations and vexations.

Reports to parents, and advice to sisters, news to share and opinions to air.

Musings with friends–from mundane to surreal,

Sweet nothings to that someone special!

Drafting and crafting late into the night,

Stashing the sheets in the envelope, before first light.

To the post office the following day, to weigh and decide

The stamps to be bought, and pasted on the top right side.

Then drop into the big red box with swish and a wish,

And the delicious anticipation of the letter in return… a month, a week, a fortnight,

Counting the days, awaiting the post, what a splendid way to spend days and nights!

I cannot think of anything better, than the sheer joy of penning a letter!

For the dinosaurs who lived through the age of pen and paper, and those who may only read about it in history books!

–Mamata

A Smile A Day

It is the face that launched a thousand (and more) emoticons. It is the ubiquitous SMILEY! Probably one of the most recognizable icons across the world, this simple graphic had humble beginnings, and an interesting history.

The original version was created in 1963 by an American graphic artist and ad man Harvey Ross Ball. He was commissioned by an insurance company that had recently been merged with another, and was facing low employee morale. His brief was to create a visual icon to accompany a morale-boosting ‘friendship campaign’ that the company was planning to launch.

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The original Smiley face Source https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/

Harvey Ball  picked up a black pen and a yellow piece of paper and started with just a grinning mouth on a perfect circle. Then he realised that this could be easily inverted to send a “frowney” message, and he added the small oval eyes. The left eye was deliberately created slightly smaller than the right, and the right side of the mouth thicker, larger and slightly off centre, in order to humanize the drawing through its imperfection. Thus emerged the world’s first Smiley Face! The design took Harvey ten minutes, and he was paid $45 for it.

 

The company first produced this design on a hundred buttons with a 7/8 inch radius, for its employees. But soon their clients also started requesting these, and the company ordered thousands of buttons. Soon the face started appearing on posters and signs also. It is not known to what extent it boosted morale, but the round yellow graphic made up only of two dots and a lopsided line was an instant hit!

Neither Harvey Ball nor the company had thought of taking a trademark or copyright on the design. With its unanticipated popularity, it was only a matter of time before the immense commercial potential of this was exploited. In the early 1970s, two brothers Bernard and Murray Spain added the tagline ‘Have a happy day’ (later changed to ‘Have a nice day’) and copyrighted the logo/slogan combination in 1971. The Spain brothers sold an estimated 50 million Smiley Face buttons, as well as an avalanche of other Smiley merchandise including coffee mugs, T-shirts, posters and, you name it… Beginning in 1996, Walmart tried to claim ownership of the design which they started using in their stores and TV ads. The disputed case dragged on for 10 years before they lost their claim to the Smiley Face.

Over the years as Harvey Ball saw how his simple idea for sharing a smile had changed. He observed that “Smiley has become so commercialized that its original message of spreading good will and good cheer has all but disappeared. I needed to do something to change that.” In 1999, he announced the formation of the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, a charitable trust that supports various children’s causes. Its slogan is “Do an act of kindness – help one person smile!”

Harvey Ball died in 2001 at the age of 79. He never regretted the fact that he did not make a penny more than $45 from the million-dollar industry that his Smiley spawned. He was satisfied that the smiling face, “has gone around the world. It’s reached everybody. Its message is as good as you can get.” Proud to be its creator, he often said, “I made the world smile.”

To spread his message, the first Friday in October is celebrated as World Smile Day. A reminder that a smile can make a difference!

–Mamata

A Gandhi for Every Poet

Among the thousands of events to mark Gandhiji’s 150th anniversary, the one I was privileged to attend was indeed special. A evening of ‘Gandhi music’ by the renowned Shubha Mudgal, at the Bangalore International  Center.

What made it special was that it was not the usual ‘Ashram bhajans’.  It was a bit disorienting to not have the performance begin with ‘Vaishnava Jan’ or ‘Raghupati Raghav’ or even ‘Ekla chalo’. But one was soon in the flow…not only of Shubhaji’s voice, but also the unknown…at least to me…songs.

This was a collection of poems on Gandhi and about his leadership of the freedom movement which the artist had researched, curated and set to music. Nothing else could have brought home more powerfully how wide and deep the Mahatma’ s influence was. There were pieces written by literary figures. A Bhojpuri folk song which talked about the charkha. A Holi song from Uttaranchal urging people to get immersed in Gandhi’s colours. A poem by someone who had lived in Gandhi’s ashram for 30 years and had written 500 poems reflecting on his experiences. A contemporary poem written a few years ago by an educational administrator from the Delhi government.

But the one that left a special mark was a song by a courtesan. In a characteristically out of the box move, Gandhiji had apparently addressed a ‘Tawaif Sabha’ in Benaras to urge them to do their bit for the freedom movement. His request was they should include  at least one protest song in their performances. In response, one well-known artist, Vidyadharibai, wrote and presumably performed a very powerful song castigating the British.

And the evening was limited to Hindi songs. It is mind-boggling to think what wealth of poetry there must be in all our languages! How did Gandhiji touch so many people, so many different kinds of people, people in so many places? How did he relate to all of them and all of them to him? Businessmen, farmers, rich, poor, professionals, weavers…..How did he inspire them and change them all?

The memory persists down generations. But the change?

—Meena

Gandhi, in and on Newspapers

It is Gandhi week, and newspapers are full of articles and pieces aIMG_20191001_104301.jpgbout Gandhi, his thoughts and deeds. This year it is with renewed vigour as it marks the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Being the prolific writer that he was, and the wide spectrum of subjects and areas on which he expressed his thoughts, every writer today can find some words of wisdom from Gandhi with respect to whatever they may choose to contribute for the ‘Gandhi special’ editions.

Gandhi himself was no exception to the pressure of meeting a newspaper deadline. Sometime in the second half on 1917 he wrote: I promised the Editor a contribution for the Diwali number of Hindustan. I find that I have no time to make good the promise, but thinking that I must write something, I place before the readers my views on newspapers. Under pressure of circumstances, I had to work in a newspaper office in South Africa and this gave me an opportunity to think on the subject. I have put in practice all the ideas that I venture to advance here.

Continuing, he went on to express his views on the business and ethics of newspapers of the day.

Newspapers are meant primarily to educate the people. They make the latter familiar with contemporary history. This is a work of no mean responsibility. It is a fact however, that the readers cannot always trust newspapers. Often the facts are found to be quite the opposite of what has been reported.  If newspapers realised that it was their duty to educate the people, they could not but wait to check a report before publishing it. It is true that often they have to work under difficult conditions. They have to sift the true from the false in but a short time, and can only guess at the truth. Even then I am of the opinion that it is better not to publish a report at all if it has not been found possible to verify it.

How interesting that the same debate about Fake news, and news used to provoke and promote dissension and distrust, continues to rage even today, albeit now, in the context not only of the print media, but all other media also.

Equally thought provoking and relevant are his concerns about the potentially dangerous role that newspapers can play.

It is often observed that newspapers publish any matter that they have, just to fill in space. This practice is almost universal. The reason is that most newspapers have their eye on profits. There is no doubt that newspapers have done great service. …But to my mind they have done no less harm. …many are full of prejudices, create or increase ill will among people. At times they produce bitterness and strife between different families and communities. …On the whole, it would seem that the existence of newspapers promotes good and evil in equal measure. 

He continues with his canny observations on how revenue from advertising tends to override other journalistic responsibilities. And this was over a hundred years ago!

It is now an established practice with newspapers to depend for revenues mainly on advertisements, rather than on subscriptions. The result has been deplorable. The very newspaper which writes against the drink-evil publishes advertisements in praise of drink. Medical advertisements are the largest source of revenue, though today they have done and are doing, incalculable harm to people.  I have been an eye witness to the harm done by them. Many people are lured into buying harmful medicines. …No matter at what cost or effort we must put an end to this undesirable practice or, at least, reform. It is the duty of every newspaper to exercise some restraint in the matter of advertisements.

Ironically my newspaper today has ten full-glossy pages creating aspirations of ”dream” lifestyles, and wooing consumers with advertisements of state-of-the art luxurious residences, gadgets, and holidays; and profligate indulgences in food, drink, clothes, cosmetics and more. The other ten pages has the kind of news that Gandhi had been so concerned about (violence, intolerance, discrimination and disparity), along with a sprinkling of pieces about the Gandhian tenets of simplicity, honesty and truthfulness, and introspection! Contradiction, or comfortable and convenient co-existence? Something to think about indeed!

Written by Gandhi sometime before 14 November 1917 (originally in Gujarati) Source: Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.14. https://www.gandhiheritageportal.org

–Mamata